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Intercommunal Tensions, Electoral Transparency among Challenges Facing West Africa, Sahel Area, Special Representative Tells Security Council

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SC/14575
8 JULY 2021
SECURITY COUNCIL
8814TH MEETING (AM)

Democratic Governance Crucial for Achieving Peace in Region, Says Delegate

Volatile security conditions, climbing humanitarian needs, electoral transparency and intercommunal tensions driven by climate change are just some of the complex issues facing countries across West Africa and the Sahel, the Secretary General's Special Representative in the region told the Security Council today, as he outlined ways his office is collaborating with regional Governments to reverse precarious trends.

In first briefing since assuming his role on 26 April, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, who is also the Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), said his inaugural action was to embark on a tour, meeting with Heads of State of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) --- and a range of national interlocutors, international partners and United Nations country teams --- to survey the challenges. Throughout, stakeholders reaffirmed their commitment to working with UNOWAS in coordination with the African Union and others.

On the security front, he detailed significantly improved coordination among the ECOWAS action plan, the Regional Stabilization, Recovery and Resilience Strategy for Areas Affected by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin Region and the United Nations integrated strategy for the Sahel, adding that electoral challenges in the region stem from a deficit of political dialogue and a lack of consensus around the principles underpinning the polls.

More broadly, he said his office has worked with ECOWAS to improve the rule of law, promoting exchanges between justice ministers and bolstering both judicial cooperation and experience-sharing, in line with the ECOWAS Additional Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. UNOWAS also joined several United Nations agencies to launch a regional working group on climate change, security, environment and development, aiming to link global efforts to national and regional policy development.

Against that backdrop, Chantal Ayemou, President of the civil society organization Réseau Ivoirien pour la Défense des Droits de l'Enfant et de la Femme, recommended a number of ways to improve the situation of women across West Africa. She called for a multisectoral approach to address women's health, including through better access to services and a broad rethinking of how health systems are financed. Women should also be able to access legal services, especially in cases of domestic violence, and countries should adopt laws specifically aimed to improve women's political participation.

In the ensuing debate, some delegates likewise made recommendations for addressing what the Secretary-General's report (document S/2021/612) characterized as "early warning signs of a democratic retreat across parts of the region" which warrant further attention, with Ireland's representative stressing that democratic governance is crucial for achieving peace and security in West Africa and the Sahel. The representative of the United States similarly called for a return to constitutional rule in Mali through democratic elections in 2022 and encouraged UNOWAS to develop a civilian-led joint project to address local conflicts.

Several delegates lauded the UNOWAS focus on regional collaboration. Niger's representative, also speaking for Kenya, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Tunisia, welcomed the regional approach being applied to climate and security, and the progress being made in operationalizing the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) [Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger] joint force. Voicing regret that security conditions have worsened despite national, regional and international efforts to combat terrorism, he urged UNOWAS to harmonize relevant strategies and called for more funding of the ECOWAS action plan to eradicate terrorism.

Addressing security concerns, France's representative, Council President for July, spoke in his national capacity to denounce recent massacres of civilians in Niger and Burkina Faso. "We must provide the countries with the support they need to combat terrorism," he stressed.

Striking a moderate tone, India's representative welcomed an increasingly vibrant and inclusive political environment in West Africa despite "a few aberrations" to this trend. He nonetheless noted that several Indian sailors have been victims of piracy and kidnapping in the Gulf of Guinea, stressing that "there is an urgent need to increase surveillance to ensure maritime security in the area through increased international collaboration."

Also speaking were representatives of the Russian Federation, United Kingdom, Viet Nam, Mexico, Estonia, Norway and China.

The meeting began at 10:01 a.m. and ended at 11:16 a.m.

Briefings

MAHAMAT SALEH ANNADIF, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), presented the Secretary-General's latest report on the Office's work (document S/2021/612) related to security, electoral, women's representation and climate challenges facing countries in the region.

Detailing efforts made since assuming his post, he said he undertook a regional tour to meet with the Heads of State of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), whose opinions on how to jointly promote peace are "very important". He also met with a broad range of national interlocutors and international partners, as well as with United Nations country teams. Throughout his interactions, stakeholders reaffirmed their commitment to working with UNOWAS, notably in coordinating activities with the African Union, ECOWAS, Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) --- Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger --- and the Gulf of Guinea Commission.

Turning to security concerns, he said terrorism in Liptako-Gourma in the Lake Chad Basin and criminality along the Gulf of Guinea must be addressed through a regional approach. "The main victims, unfortunately, are civilians," he said. He pointed to the 2017 Accra initiative, involving Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Togo, as an example to be followed. He likewise noted significantly improved coordination among the ECOWAS action plan, the Regional Stabilization Strategy of the Lake Chad Basin and the United Nations integrated strategy for the Sahel, adding that electoral challenges in the region stem from a deficit of political dialogue and lack of consensus on the principles underpinning elections.

More broadly, he said his Office has worked with ECOWAS to improve exchanges between justice ministers, bolstering judicial cooperation and experience-sharing in a wide promotion of the rule of law, in line with the ECOWAS Additional Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. He also described a positive dynamic in the representation of women and young people in decision-making bodies, describing laws on quotas and parity as "encouraging". UNOWAS also continues to co-chair the regional working group on conflict prevention, collaborating with the United Nations Regional Office for Central Africa (UNOCA) and the Special Coordinator for Development in the Sahel to identify priority areas for United Nations action in 2021.

Given the importance of addressing climate insecurity, he said UNOWAS has joined other United Nations agencies in launching a regional working group on climate change, security, environment and development, with the goal of promoting synergies and linking global efforts to national and regional policy development. As for the COVID-19 pandemic, he said West Africa and the Sahel have resisted the crisis "fairly well", adding that the United Nations, along with bilateral and multilateral partners, must encourage countries not to relax their efforts, as the coronavirus continues to have an impact on socioeconomic conditions.

CHANTAL AYEMOU, President of the civil society organization Réseau Ivoirien pour la Défense des Droits de l'Enfant et de la Femme, said Côte d'Ivoire has made progress in advancing women's empowerment since the 1995 Beijing Conference. That included adopting a law that punishes female genital mutilation, opening up military positions to women, ensuring education for all children from ages 6 to 16 and enacting a quota that requires 30 per cent of a political party's list to be made up of women. Despite all those measures, however, Côte d'Ivoire still ranked 153rd out of 162 countries on a recent edition of the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) gender equality index. Outlining a range of troubling statistics --- including women's very limited land ownership rights, high rates of physical and domestic violence and low levels of female representation in politics --- she said Côte d'Ivoire also faces serious security challenges in its northern border areas, which heavily impact women who are most represented in the agricultural sector.

Against that backdrop, she went on to list a range of recommendations to help improve the situation of women in the West African region. She called for a multisectoral approach to addressing women's health, including facilitating better access to health services, and a broad rethinking of how health systems are financed. In particular, health care must be provided to women during pregnancy, delivery and the post-partum period. Women should also be able to access legal services, especially in cases of domestic violence, and countries should adopt laws specifically aimed to improve women's political participation. In addition, she called for representation structures to make climate policies in West Africa more gender sensitive, and which allow women to truly influence decision-making.

Statements

ABDOU ABARRY (Niger), also speaking on behalf of Kenya, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Tunisia, welcomed the regional approach being applied to the link between climate and security in Africa and the progress being made in operationalizing the G5 Sahel joint force. Voicing regret that the security situation continues to deteriorate despite national, regional and international efforts to combat terrorism, he urged UNOWAS to help harmonize relevant security and development strategies and called for more funding of the ECOWAS action plan for 2020‑2024 for the eradication of terrorism. He stressed that West Africa is neither a producer nor a consumer of drugs, emphasizing that if the regions of origin and final destination do not assume their responsibilities to counter the phenomenon "the efforts of the United Nations and West African countries will remain in vain".

Turning to the humanitarian front, he said the effects of COVID-19, food insecurity, displacement and the adverse effects of climate change have all increased at an alarming rate. Those challenges demand urgent solidarity and action. While COVID-19 vaccines have gradually begun to reach the region, the pace remains slow and doses received are limited. Meanwhile, the reluctance of some populations to receive the vaccine is of great concern. Emphasizing that equitable access to vaccines remains a priority, he also underscored the need to increase contributions to the Sahel Humanitarian Response Plan, which, by mid‑June, had received only 16 per cent of the $2.7 billion required.

GERALDINE BYRNE NASON (Ireland) said democratic governance is crucial for peace in West Africa and the Sahel. She condemned persistent attacks on schools, especially abductions in Nigeria, as seen again this week, stressing that, without women's participation, stability cannot be achieved. "Women must be supported, encouraged and protected in all political processes," she asserted. She likewise condemned attacks against civilians, particularly in Niger and Burkina Faso, pointing to climate change as a driver of conflict across the region. Rising food insecurity in the Central Sahel and Lake Chad Basin is another deep concern, as is piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, which similarly shows no respect for borders and requires a regional institutional response. She highlighted the vital role of UNOWAS in promoting regional and subregional cooperation, urging regional partners to focus on their political commitment to democratic governance, human rights and regional cooperation.

DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation) shared the concerns over threats facing countries in the region, where terrorism runs rampant, intercommunal conflicts persist and drug trafficking is flourishing. Due to security and COVID‑19 challenges, many social institutions, schools and medical centres were unable to open. Nonetheless, countries managed to progress through their election cycles, he said, underscoring the need to ensure transparency and strict respect for sovereignty. Interference by outside players "must not happen", he insisted, outlining his expectation that the conduct of the constitutional referendum and elections in Mali will be observed. Noting that UNOWAS faces "vast and difficult" challenges to facilitate political mediation, assist State institutions and implement the United Nations integrated strategy for the Sahel, he said its success depends on its joint work with the African Union, G5 Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin Commission. In efforts to fight piracy and on the demarcation of the Cameroon border, its joint work is evident, he said, calling the preservation of sanctions against Guinea‑Bissau "absurd" and advocating for their steady dismantling.

RICHARD M. MILLS, JR.(United States) touched on the need to strengthen democracy, stop terrorism and find community-led solutions to violence across the region. In 2021, Niger held its first-ever successful transfer of power between Presidents, with the Constitutional Court's confirmation highlighting how strong institutions are vital to healthy democracies. In Mali, the United States stands with ECOWAAS in calling for the return to constitutional rule through democratic elections in 2022, and joined the world in calling for the immediate, unconditional release of those detained or under house arrest. He expressed support for all efforts to counter terrorist acts across the Sahel, underscoring the need to boost confidence in regional security forces and governing authorities. He similarly condemned the use of child soldiers. The United States deeply values efforts by ECOWAS and UNOWAS to promote stability across the Sahel, notably through community projects, which requires soliciting input from individuals and civil society alike. In that context, he suggested that UNOWAS develop a joint civilian-led project to address local conflicts.

JAMES PAUL ROSCOE (United Kingdom) said security in the Sahel is the dominant regional concern and he encouraged UNOWAS to focus on coordinated steps to address the drivers of conflict. Noting the report's reference to insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea, and the possibility it could be conflated with land-based risks, he said the United Kingdom supports African partners to find regionally led solutions, notably through the Group of Seven and Group of Friends of the Gulf of Guinea, which it co-chairs with Senegal. In addition, the United Kingdom brokered an action plan to save millions of people from famine, with 267 million pounds in assistance provided to communities in north-east Nigeria. Welcoming peaceful elections in Côte d'Ivoire and Niger, and preparations in the Gambia and Cabo Verde, he shared concerns about violence marking elections in Benin and Guinea, encouraging UNOWAS to foster dialogue as a way to resolve differences. Expressing concern over impunity for rights violations, he said UNOWAS must call for strengthened accountability and compliance with human rights standards and keep its attention on what States --- and the United Nations --- can do to address insecurity, encourage parties to allow humanitarian access, work with States to prepare for elections and act as a champion for equal rights and the role of women across the region.

TRA PHUONG NGUYEN (Viet Nam), noting that progress in forging reconciliation has taken place alongside election-related violence and challenges hindering electoral processes, called on all stakeholders to engage in dialogue, including on the transition in Mali. Viet Nam supports UNOWAS efforts to work with related parties to maintain security in the region and increase the meaningful participation of women in this process. Noting that many countries face violence, terrorism, intercommunal conflict, organized crime, trafficking, COVID-19 and "threats from the sea", she said it is distressful to learn about casualties among civilians and peacekeepers caused by terrorists and she called for justice. It is crucial for all in the region to redouble their efforts to combat terrorism. She called for adequate resources for the G5 Sahel joint force and greater protection for peacekeepers. As 29 million are in need of assistance and protection across the region in 2021, she appealed for increased funding to meet their needs and pressed parties to facilitate the delivery of emergency assistance. The integration of current and projected climate threats into all such work is also needed.

ALICIA GUADALUPE BUENROSTRO MASSIEU(Mexico) expressed regret that West Africa continues to suffer from the effects of political instability, terrorism, inequality, intercommunal conflict, organized crime, climate change and the COVID‑19 pandemic. Citing growing clashes between terrorist groups and increasing instances of kidnappings as sources of grave concern, she nevertheless stressed that counter-terrorism efforts must always be carried out in full respect for international law. In that context, she deplored recent violations of human rights committed by national and international actors, which must be investigated and prosecuted as they risk delegitimizing institutions. Sustainable development initiatives and access to basic services must be a central prong of all efforts to restore stability, and education remains the key to social mobility and fighting radicalization. In that vein, she called for the urgent reopening of more than 500 schools closed during the pandemic, and for a better balance between the resources allocated for security and development.

RAVINDRA RAGUTTAHALLI (India) said that the increasingly vibrant and inclusive political environment in West Africa deserves the Council's unequivocal appreciation, even if there may be a few aberrations to that trend. The security situation remains stable, except in the G5 Sahel countries and the Lake Chad Basin. Bilateral and international support for Mali is critical in these difficult times, he said, adding that India echoes the Secretary-General's call for predictable and sustainable funding to the G5 Sahel joint force. Turning to the Gulf of Guinea, he noted that several Indian sailors have been victims of piracy and kidnappings. "There is an urgent need to increase surveillance to ensure maritime security in the area through increased international collaboration." He went on to stress the urgent need to scale up humanitarian assistance to the region, including by using more African capacity, products and services.

SVEN JÜRGENSON (Estonia) said that the sense among the population of West Africa and the Sahel of a democratic reversal is an early warning sign that must be addressed immediately. "While the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affects the overall functioning of a society, it must not be used as a pretext to curtail civil liberties." States in the region must do more to enable women's participation in political processes. He welcomed the strengthening of the G5 Sahel joint force, but emphasized that a security-centred approach alone will not bring lasting peace and stability and that root causes must be addressed. He went on to express concern that many schools in the Sahel remain closed or non-operational.

MONA JUUL (Norway) congratulated Niger on its first-ever transfer of power from one democratically elected President to another and praised the new President for putting youth, education and safe schools at the heart of his agenda. However, the Solhan massacre in Burkina Faso, in which children were among the victims, and the repeated abductions of students in Nigeria are a reminder of the challenges that still face young people and civilians in the region. The Council must find ways to support regional responses to terrorism, which is worryingly spreading seawards. Action is also needed in the Gulf of Guinea, the world's piracy hotspot. She went on to discuss Norway's new holistic Sahel strategy, saying that it mirrors the Council's overall priorities, including peace diplomacy, women's rights and participation, the protection of civilians and climate and security.

DAI BING (China) said the situation in West Africa and the Sahel has been generally stable since the start of 2021, with ongoing political dialogue and the successful holding of various national elections. The Council should continue to support the region's leadership, and UNOWAS should provide support for additional upcoming elections. However, the region's security situation remains fragile, with terrorist attacks still being committed regularly. For that reason, he called for more integrated humanitarian, development and security approaches which better address the root causes of violent extremism, along with international support for regional States to combat poverty and bolster their capacity. Partners should always provide support in line with national priorities and in full respect for State sovereignty. Turning to COVID-19, he warned West African countries not to relax their preventive approaches, as the virus is still spreading. Vaccine access and affordability is crucial, and partners should support countries of the region in their post-pandemic reconstruction efforts. He also called for pragmatic debt‑relief measures and support for industrialization and sustainable development, outlining China's own significant support to the region.

NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France), Council President for July, speaking in his national capacity, expressed his country's horror over recent massacres of civilians in Niger and Burkina Faso. "We must provide the countries with the support they need to combat terrorism," he stressed, noting the potential of the new International Academy for the Fight Against Terrorism --- which was inaugurated in Côte d'Ivoire in June, and is supported by France --- to serve a key role in that regard. He encouraged the cooperation of coastal countries in West Africa with those in the Sahel, describing such partnerships as particularly promising. Confidence must also be restored between States and their populations. Turning to the political landscape, he called for the further consolidation of democracy and welcomed the successful holding of elections in recent months, while also praising the announcement of a new standing framework for social and political dialogue in Guinea and voicing support for the Special Representative's relevant good offices functions.